People come to furniture making via many different paths, but Leslie Webb is the first furniture maker I know who got into the field through a gig as a nanny.
“I had gone off to college [at Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine] and was completely lost in terms of direction,” she began, by way of explanation. “I found everything at college interesting. But when I thought about ‘do you want to do this for the rest of your life,’ it wasn’t THAT interesting.” She worried she might not have any direction at all.
So Leslie decided to take a break. Everyone she knew thought she was throwing her life away, and she remembers how scary it was to make her way forward against that disapproval.
It was around 2000, and she had to get a job to support herself. “I was looking through the newspaper at help wanted ads. I saw this ad; it said ‘childcare in exchange for an apartment.’” It was a start; at least she’d have a roof over her head, even if the job didn’t come with income. She wrote a letter of introduction, explaining that she’d babysat in high school, even if she understood that didn’t amount to much experience. It turned out that Julie, the mother, had family members from Texas, Leslie’s home state; she was born in Georgetown in 1978. Leslie thinks this seemingly tenuous connection may have been helpful. They hit it off at the interview, especially after realizing that Julie’s grandmother was at a nursing home in a small town called McGregor; Leslie’s mother was working with elderly patients as a physical therapist, and as it happened, she knew Julie’s grandmother. “It was such a weird thing!”
After a series of interviews Leslie got the job. She got along well with the family, who treated her well. She still keeps in touch with the boy she was caring for, who is now a young adult.
One day Leslie spotted a Moser catalog on the kitchen counter with a pile of mail. “At breakfast I was randomly flipping through and thought, ‘Oh, it would be so cool to build furniture, because it’s beautiful, but it’s useful too.’” Robert, the father of her charge, told her he knew basic carpentry and would be happy to teach her.
Robert was a fine arts painter who did massive paintings – 8’ long x 4’ high – for which he made his own frames and shipping crates. So she started helping him build crates in his Brunswick studio.
“I was cutting a 2×4 for a crate,” Leslie recalls. “I remember using a chop saw and seeing the blade sinking into the wood and I knew ‘this is it.’”
She worked as the family’s nanny for about three years. In her spare time, she tried to build some pieces of furniture but got stuck because she knew the quality she wanted to produce but didn’t know how to get there. There were no woodworkers in her family to ask for advice. YouTube videos were not yet a thing; the only resource she knew about was Fine Woodworking, which she read but found largely over her head.
Leslie concluded she was going to have to train through a program. She’d been in Maine long enough to know about the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, so she checked out its website and found the nine-month program was soon launching. The deadline was just around the corner, so she submitted an application and was delighted to learn she’d been accepted. Her mom was worried about Leslie’s ability to support herself as a furniture maker. Her dad, a doctor, was “not supportive at all.” As the youngest of her parents’ four children, she thinks she was his last hope for one of them to go to medical school.
“I so enjoyed the entire process,” she says of her training at CFC. “I really enjoyed being able to design my own pieces. The first two projects are teacher-designed, to build hand and machine skills, respectively. The rest you design yourself, up to a point. I enjoyed the process of having an idea and figuring out whether it would work or not. And I still do enjoy that process, so much.”
For joinery, she focuses on traditional mortises and tenons, dovetails and miters with reinforcement. “Nothing too out of the box. I gravitate aesthetically toward contemporary stuff – pretty stripped-back designs that don’t have a ton of adornment. Sometimes integral tenons, sometimes floating.” She usually makes her own floating tenons. “I don’t always let the tool dictate. Sometimes I modify what the tool can do so it’s not dictating.”
Today Leslie works in a small shop, a converted two-car garage in Georgetown, Texas, where she returned to live around 2011. Some of her work is commissioned, some done in small batches and some on spec. Outside of Instagram, I first became aware of Leslie’s work when I saw a few pieces on exhibit at the Grovewood Gallery in Asheville, N.C. They were flawless – beautifully made and elegantly designed. She is also one of the women and woman-identifying makers whose work was juried into the Making a Seat at the Table exhibition in Philadelphia from October 2019 through January 2020. She has done lots of shows over the years, among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, Architectural Digest Home Design Show, International Contemporary Furniture Fair/ICFF, and Wanted Design.
Furniture making is an economically precarious field, especially for those whose livelihood depends on their own income alone, without help from a partner. By the time she moved home to Texas, Leslie had already weathered the Great Recession. “I went through the crash in 2008 with my furniture business and it was awful,” she says. So she’d been thinking vaguely about how she might add another income-producing dimension to her work. “One day the idea popped into my head: I wonder whether I could sell HNT Gordon tools over here.” There was no retail outlet in the States; the company is based in Australia. “I realized it would be a whole other thing,” but she reminded herself that furniture making has its own stresses. The idea stayed in the back of her head; it wouldn’t go away.
Over the years she’d bought some HNT Gordon tools for her own use. After pondering for two or three years, she decided to start with those. As part of her research she gauged interest among her woodworking friends. “People were hesitant [to buy HNT Gordon tools] because [the company] was overseas.” Some told her that the ordering process was unclear to them; others worried that there might be hidden fees for international orders and so on. Finally, she contacted the company to inquire. Terry, the head of the business, was on board. So she decided to try.
In late 2019 Leslie started Heartwood Tools, which specializes in high-quality woodworking tools. “It’s going really well!” she says. In fact, “it has temporarily taken over. If I had known that the pandemic was coming when I launched it, I probably would not have done it. But it has exploded – I think in large part people are spending more time at home and doing more furniture making.”
Do You Deserve a Good Caning?
Caning – for stools, chair seats and small tables – is another corner of the furniture-making world in which Leslie is making her mark. Over the years she has used pre-made sheets for caned work, but then she learned how to do it herself. “I’ve always liked caning,” she says. “We had dining chairs with caned seats when I was little. I remember being fascinated that they could hold people, child or adult. It didn’t seem like that should be possible.” She likes being able to introduce color into her work but hates to dye or stain wood. Caning (seat weaving?) offered a way to combine natural wood with eye-popping colors. “I don’t dye the caning. I have experimented with that, but was not happy with the results. That led me to look elsewhere for color, which led to cotton rope and paracord as weaving materials.”
She taught herself how to weave. “Once you know how to do Danish cord, it’s not that intimidating.” She’d taught herself to use Danish cord using “The Caner’s Handbook”. A couple of people on Instagram also let her “pick their brains.”
Why Furniture Making?
“I have spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating ‘why furniture making?’, says Leslie, “mostly because it still seems like such an ‘out of left field’ passion when I look at my life. I have never encountered another subject which so thoroughly engages all parts of my brain, creative and analytical. Dreaming up new designs while also agonizing over 32nds [of an inch] and adding fractions in my head? Sign me up. Time in the shop also forces me to be completely present in the moment. Drifting off in thought for even a brief moment can result in ruining a piece or worse, a shop accident. Grabbing a hand tool or turning on a machine is the fastest way to leave my worries behind. I think the thing that keeps me coming back for more, though, is the continual chase for improvement – and not compared to others, but to what I have accomplished previously,” she says. “Even after 20 years, I don’t feel like I have mastered anything, and I kind of like that. There is always a new specialized niche skill to learn or a mistake to be fixed. It is a humbling pursuit; there is nothing like messing up a process I’ve done hundreds of time to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground. I could come up with a multi-page list of why I love woodworking, but the truth is I am not sure how much logic controls the things we love; we simply do.”